The common thread among Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Barbaro, the three most celebrated race horses this decade, was not merely talent. Each one had ties to the Philadelphia area, a region that had hardly been known for producing fast thoroughbreds. Do horses thrive on a diet of cheesesteaks or have the sporting Gods taken pity on an area that hasn't produced an NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB champion since 1983, when the Sixers won the NBA title? It's hard to tell, but something must be going on because it looks like another Philly horse is about to make a serious run at the Kentucky Derby.
Hard Spun passed the first real test of his career last Saturday, dominating six rivals in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds. Winning by 6 ½ lengths, he remained perfect in four career starts and he has yet to face a serious challenge.
So far, his career closely resembles that of Smarty Jones. Both were bred in Pennsylvania and both won the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes at Philadelphia Park. John Servis trained Smarty Jones and he helped pick out Hard Spun as a yearling, when he was sold for $400,000, and had him before he debuted. In May, Servis and owner Rick Porter severed ties and the colt was transferred to trainer Larry Jones.
"Absolutely, John deserves a big pat on the back when it comes to this horse," said Porter.
Porter, also the owner of Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Round Pound, made his money selling cars in Delaware, not far from the Pennsylvania border. Hard Spun spent much of the year at Delaware Park, once the home of Afleet Alex, who was owned by a bunch of Philadelphians. Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, live in the Philadelphia suburbs.
"It's just amazing that it looks like there's another very good horse from this area," Porter said. "It went decades without producing a good horse. Then all of a sudden you've got four or five really good ones. I assume it's a coincidence. The thing is, it doesn't matter where a horse is from. What matters is, 'how good are they?'"
In Hard Spun's case, that question hasn't necessarily been answered.
Even though he is by top sire Danzig, also a Pennsylvania bred, Hard Spun was not that highly regarded by his camp when he first arrived at the track as a 2-year-old. Servis gave Porter less than glowing reports and when Porter was choosing new trainers after he split with Servis, he gave his best horses to Michael Matz. Jones got the so-called second string.
"Larry got this horse by default," Porter said. "He's sure happy, though, that he got him."
But something eventually clicked with Hard Spun and he romped in his debut, winning an Oct. 22 maiden special weight race at Delaware Park by 8 3/4 lengths under a hand ride from Mario Pino. He then won the Port Penn Stakes at Delaware by 5 lengths and the Pennsylvania Nursery by 7 3/4 lengths. In each race, he was far from all out.
Though visually impressive, he was hardly breaking any stopwatches. His top Beyer figure through his first three races was an 87 and his time for the seven-furlong Pennsylvania Nursery was 1:23 4/5. Smarty Jones won the same race in 1:21. But when horses are winning so easily against inferior competition, sometimes they aren't forced to run that fast.
"We had felt that we hadn't seen the best of this horse yet," Jones said. "We hadn't trained him exceptionally hard and were hoping that each races kept moving him in the right direction."
The Lecomte, while not exactly a tough spot, at least included a few proven horses, the type who figured to give Hard Spun somewhat of a fight. Instead, the result was a case of more of the same. He won easily and never seemed to be exerting himself. His time for the one mile was 1:37 and he earned a Beyer figure of 95. That's still a tad slow for a major 3-year-old, but he certainly seems capable of running faster.
Hard Spun still hasn't beaten a top field or run particularly fast, so he has more to prove. Porter and Jones are undecided about his next start, which will either come in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds or the Southwest Stakes (also won by Smarty Jones) at Oaklawn. He will need to step it up a notch as the challenges get tougher, but there's no reason to believe the latest Philly sensation can't.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.